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In Philosophy, Ethics is commonly divided into two branches, normative
ethics and meta-ethics. Normative ethics addresses questions such as "What
actions are good and bad?" and "What should we do?" Thus, a theory of
normative ethics will endorse some ethical evaluations. Meta-ethics, on the
other hand, seeks to understand the nature of ethical evaluations. Thus,
examples of meta-ethical questions include:
* What does it mean to say something is "good"?
* How, if at all, do we know what is right and wrong?
* How do moral attitudes motivate action?
* Are there objective values?
A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory, does not contain
any ethical evaluations (notice that an answer to any of the above four
questions would not itself be an ethical statement).
In the last century, the field of meta-ethics has been dominated by five
kinds of theories:
1. Ethical intuitionism, which holds that there are objective, irreducible
moral properties (such as the property of 'goodness'), and that we
sometimes have intuitive awareness of moral properties or of moral
2. Ethical naturalism, which holds that there are objective moral
properties, but that these properties are reducible. Most ethical
naturalists hold that we have empirical knowledge of moral truths.
Several have argued that moral knowledge can be gained by the same
means as scientific knowledge.
3. Ethical subjectivism, which holds that moral statements are made true
or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of observers. An example
of this is the view that for a thing to be morally right is just for it
to be approved of by society; this leads to the view that different
things are right in different societies.
4. Non-cognitivism, which holds that ethical sentences are neither true
nor false because they do not assert genuine propositions. Some have
held that ethical sentences such as "Stealing is wrong" are merely
expressions of emotion; others have argued that they are more like
5. Moral skepticism, which holds that ethical sentences are generally
false. Moral skeptics hold that there are no objective values, but that
the claim that there are objective values is part of the meaning of
ordinary ethical sentences; that is why, in their view, ethical
sentences are false.